Wessex Attractions: Shaftesbury Abbey

Shaftesbury Abbey was founded by Alfred the Great in 888, and continued until it was dissolved in 1539 by order of Thomas Cromwell. At the time, it was the wealthiest convent in Wessex, and the second wealthiest in England, exceeded only by Syon Abbey in Richmond, Surrey.

For a long time, the Abbey was the home of a shrine to Edward, King and Martyr. The translation of the relics in February 981 from Wareham, their previous home, was overseen by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ælfhere, Ealdorman of Mercia. The latter was a rather ironic choice, as he was a supporter of Edward’s stepmother Ælfthryth, whose servants were behind the murder, and who was widely believed to be the instigator. His involvement appears to be a way of distancing himself from the killing. The procession was reenacted in 1981 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary.

In Jude The Obscure, Thomas Hardy wrote of the ruins of Shaston Abbey (his name for Shaftesbury) that “Vague imaginings of its castle, its three mints, its magnificent apsidal Abbey, the chief glory of south Wessex, its twelve churches, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, its gabled freestone mansions—all now ruthlessly swept away—throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy which the stimulating atmosphere and limitless landscape around him can scarcely dispel.”

Today, the abbey survives as a museum and herb garden. It often hosts open air events such as movie screenings during the summertime. Interestingly, their website features the Wessex coat of arms in its masthead.

The museum is open from March to October. The nearest rail station is Gillingham (Dorset), and bus numbers 2, 6, 7, 27, 29 and 86 serve the nearby Town Hall bus stop. The satnav postcode is SP7 8JR.

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